Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Last Sunday after Pentecost: Christ the King – November 23, 2014
In the Name of our God who is all kindness, Christ who reigns in justice, and the Holy Spirit who recreates our every moment. Amen.
In his book, Down from Troy, Richard Selzer starts out with a memory of his youth and of his mother, whom he admired greatly. In a brief aside, he admits that she was unable to cook anything without lumps. Mashed potatoes, applesauce, oatmeal—all had lumps. “To this day,” he writes, “I have some problems facing some foods.”
You and I come here for all sorts of reasons. We may come just to worship or to give thanks for God’s goodness. We may come for comfort and rest. We may come seeking God’s healing and forgiveness. We may come because we don’t know where else to take our doubts or angst or pain. I suspect, however, that we all come wanting to feel better when we leave.
We want our experience here to be homogenized and smooth and we like our thinking and believing to be the same. We want everything to go down smoothly like good mashed potatoes, but not everything does. At the heart of the Gospel, at the core of what Jesus has to say to us, there are sometimes lumps. “When did we see you hungry and give you food, or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or not? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? Or not? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? Or not?
“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
On this last Sunday after Pentecost, the last Sunday of the church year, and days before we celebrate a national day of Thanksgiving that will find many of us sitting at tables with large amounts of food and beverage, we are confronted with a Gospel that raises uncomfortable questions. Is this a judgment day story? Is this what we face in the end? The great test of God? Who are we—sheep or goats? When did we see you, Jesus, in any of these dire circumstances? And, then there is the big lump in this passage, how did we respond? Do we even remember?
Sheep or goats? Sheep can be a pain in the neck. They scatter easily, can be crabby with each other, and get themselves into trouble. Sometimes they seem to have no common sense. Still, they are beautiful and loveable. Goats can be wonderful and they can be naughty—even give you a swift kick in the pants. This part of the Gospel is actually a good metaphor for community and for us, the Body of Christ. I don’t think Jesus wants us to try to figure out who we are—sheep or goats? Or, for that matter, who anyone else is. All people and all communities have times of being loving and supportive and times when they are dysfunctional and disjointed.
I don’t think this is a story about judgment and condemnation. I think it is a story about enlightenment and encouragement. I think it has much more to do with the present—how we will live if we truly believe that Christ is among us—than about the future and what God will do with us. I believe that Jesus tells this story to empower and challenge us to see life from God’s perspective rather than from the perspective of the world.
I believe that God wants us open our eyes wide enough to see the unity of all humanity, to see how each of us and all of us reflect God’s nature and to experience the richness of a moment that we might otherwise miss. I love Eugene Peterson’s translation of this piece of the text” “Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.” Someone overlooked or ignored.
Like Bill, for example. He has wild hair, wears a T-shirt, jeans with holes in them, and no shoes—literally his wardrobe for his entire four years of college. He is brilliant, rather profound and very, very bright. Across the street from the campus where he lived is a well-dressed, very conservative church that wanted to develop a ministry to the students but not sure how to go about it.
One day Bill decided to go there. He walked in with no shoes, jeans, his T-shirt, and wild hair. The service has already started and so Bill started down the aisle looking for a seat. The church was completely packed. Bill got closer and closer and closer to the pulpit, and when he realized there were no seats, he just squatted down right on the floor. By now the people were really edgy, and the tension in the air was thick.
About then, the minister realized that from way at the back of the church, an elderly, long-time parishioner was slowly making his way toward Bill. This gentleman was in his eighties and wore a three-piece suit—very elegant, very dignified, very courtly. He walked with a cane and, as he moved toward this boy, everyone was thinking that no one could blame him for what he was about to do with that cane. How could one expect a man of his age and of his background to understand some college kid sitting on the floor? By the time the man reached the kid the church was utterly silent but for the clicking of the man’s cane.
All eyes focused on him. And then they see this elderly man drop his cane on the floor. With great difficulty, he lowered himself and sat down next to Bill to worship with him so he would not be alone. When the minister regained composure, he said, “What I’m about to preach, you will never remember. What you have just seen, you will never forget.”
There are many ways to feed and quench thirst and give shelter and welcome. Maybe we miss Jesus because of the disguise he wears. Franciscan monk Richard Rohr says it best: “God is not transcendent as we first imagine. God is now humble, with us, dwelling on our side, and for us more than we are for ourselves. God is not found in distant glory, but in humility, where we are all living our oh-so-humble lives.
This awareness totally repositions the spiritual journey. Now the goal is poverty, not affluence…Now the goal is the bottom, not the top. We stop ranking vertically and we start connecting horizontally.”
Jesus told us that the kingdom of God is within us—right here with all of us goaty sheep, in all our material, mental, spiritual and physical poverty. We discover the kingdom by our relationship with each other and by ministering to each other’s needs.
Jesus says, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” We may squirm in the awkwardness of that invitation and look around to see if he is really talking to us? When did we see you hungry or thirsty, a stranger or naked or sick or in prison?
We may find some lumps in this Gospel. We may wonder if we’ll ever hear Jesus speak those words to us. We may feel more like goats one day and more like sheep on another. But we’re going to make it. We’re going to learn generosity one slow step at a time. It may be hard to believe that now, and it may only happen by that wonderful divine commodity called amazing grace. But we will get there because God believes in us.